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Many Masters

October 1, 2009

In the comments to my last post a good friend of mine (who happens to be one of the journeyman I look up to) asked why I think the “solo” or “masterless” apprentice situation is so common.

In Just Some Kid I said there are two main reasons why we grow up too fast in the software development craft: Ego and Money. I think the second one is a big influence on our current situation and obviously is a practical concern for everyone.

When we get out of college and we need a job we don’t think, “Man, I really need to find a mentor to study under.” We think, “Man, I’d really like to eat something other than ramen and Pabst Blue Ribbon.” So we skip that whole step where the focus is to learn. In doing that, we miss out on a great opportunity to apprentice to a mentor.

A little context – What is an apprentice?

As I understand it, an apprentice works for a master craftsman, learning the craft and his master’s Way.1 A Way is simply that particular master’s time-honed methods for producing great crafts and maintaining a sustainable workshop. And a master’s Way is, of course, influenced by her mentors’ Ways.

I wish had gone through an apprenticeship 7 years ago when I first started in this industry. It just wasn’t in the stars. With a load of credit card debt and Sallie Mae staring me down the options were go sling coffee at Starbucks or find a job at a little web shop where I could get paid to be the only code “expert.”

And now I’ve been out there in the working world for a while. I’ve worked for a few places and picked up some good stuff along the way, but not everything I’d like to have. I’m a de facto journeyman2, but one who never went through a true apprenticeship.

So what do I do? I’m not going to drop everything and go back to square one. I have a life and a house and everything. How do I patch those holes in my education? How do I adopt the apprentice’s open mind when I have a Real Job™?

I take mentorship in small doses and as often as possible. I apprentice to many masters. I might not be able to study under my mentors 24/7 like some ancient kung fu devotee, but I can seek out those around me willing to share. Sometimes I’ll take an afternoon or a whole Saturday to spend time programming with someone I really respect. I’ll ask them to revue my code. I’ll listen to their war stories from the old days of punch card programming. I’ve even gone over to their companies to give them some free work just to see how their Way works and how their masters do it.

There are mentors everywhere. You don’t have to be at the start of your career to study under the masters.

Find your heroes and go sit at their feet for a little while.

And by the way, if you want to share your Way, I’d love to come hang out at your office. Hit me up on Twitter: @kfitzpatrick

1 – In the old European guilds, an apprentice would start out at as young as ten years old and live as part of his (or rarely her) master’s household.

2 – I can charge a very reasonable day’s wage. See

  1. I think you may be underestimating the ability to learn from your peers. You can learn something from anyone at any level. I have definitely learned a lot from my colleagues whatever their level. But lately I have learned so much more by working with less experienced developers. Trying to explain your ideas to someone with +5 years less experience than you is extremely difficult. You really need to understand your own decisions to be able to explain them to an “apprentice”.I like your idea of the “Masterless Apprenticeship” but not only should we be open to learning from masters, we should just be open to learning.

  2. kfitzpatrick permalink

    Andrew, I completely agree! There is plenty to learn from your peers. I don't underestimate it at all, it just wasn't the focus of this particular post. One should be open to learning all the time and teaching is absolutely just as important.

  3. Kevin, I too find myself in the same situation you describe in the post, having followed a similar path towards becoming the “expert developer”. It takes a great deal of courage to realize and specially to say it out aloud to the general public those words.

    At some point in my career, back in 2003, I got to work under someone that appreciated my potential as an apprentice and despite being more experienced and skilled than I was back then, treated me like an equal peer.

    3 years later, I got to leave that company, having out learned my master, but I made a huge mistake: instead of leaving to a place where I could learn more, I went somewhere I could lead and earn good money.

    While the leadership experience was worthwhile, I feel today that I may not have advanced in our craft as much as I should after 12 years as a journeyman. My old master now looks up to me for guidance and advice, which is good, but I failed to move from master to master and keep learning.

    Based on that observation, I quit my latest job, where I spent 2 years being the “head” of software development in a startup company – team of 6 – and am currently searching for a place to work where I can find not a single master, but actually be an apprentice in a group of greater journeymen and masters, even if that means taking a hit on my paycheck – as long as it pays the bills for me and the family of course.

    How did you go about finding new masters to apprentice under? I find myself with limited options having a family and living in Belgium – even worse – being a foreigner living in Belgium and not speaking the local languages.

    Thanks for the great post!


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